Taking care of business

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What if police officers needed to use firearms against armed felons but could not do so because the department neglected to purchase bullets or what if police could not pursue criminals speeding away from the scene of a crime because no one thought to put gasoline in the police vehicle?

Loss of evidence resulting from the FBI's failure to pay phone bills might not be as obviously absurd, but it comes close.

A Justice Department audit found that telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps used to eavesdrop on suspected criminals because of the bureau's repeated failures to pay phone bills on time. The audit released last week blamed the lost connections on the FBI's lax oversight of money used in undercover investigations.

In at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation "was halted due to untimely payment," the audit found. FISA wiretaps are used in the government's most sensitive and secretive criminal and intelligence investigations, and allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies.

"We also found that late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence," according to the audit by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

More than half of 990 bills to pay for telecommunication surveillance in five unidentified FBI field offices were not paid on time, the report shows.

Paying bills may not be the most glamorous activity in a law enforcement agency but taking care of the basics still needs to be done in any governmental or private agency.